This is irritating me. I seen several suggestions (all using different files and syntax) and none of them worked.

How do I set an environment variable for a specific user? I am on debian squeeze. What is the exact syntax I should put in the file to make ABC = "123"?

  • 9
    What did you try already?
    – l0b0
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 11:25
  • 2
    editing .bashrc, .bash_profile, .profile and .ssh/eviroment. Although i dont know if i wrote it in the right location or had the right syntax each time
    – user4069
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 11:33
  • 4
    .bashrc is the main place for that. Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 11:58
  • @rozcietrzewiacz: ok but... even after having the solution i tried setting ABC1 and ABC2 at the start and end of that file and it isnt set in my environment.
    – user4069
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 12:31
  • 1
    Check that .bash_profile contains something like [[ -f ~/.bashrc ]] && . ~/.bashrc. Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 12:38

6 Answers 6


You have to put the declaration in the initialization files of your shell:

  • If you are using bash, ash, ksh or some other Bourne-style shell, you can add

    ABC="123"; export ABC

    in your .profile file (${HOME}/.profile). This is the default situation on most Unix installations, and in particular on Debian.

    If your login shell is bash, you can use .bash_profile (${HOME}/.bash_profile) or .bash_login instead.

    Note: If either of these files exists and your login shell is bash, .profile is not read when you log in over ssh or on a text console, but it might still be read instead of .bash_profile if you log in from the GUI. Also, if there is no .bash_profile, then use .bashrc.

  • If you've set zsh as your login shell, use ~/.zprofile instead of ~/.profile.

  • If you are using tcsh, add

    setenv ABC "123"

    in .login file (${HOME}/.login)

  • if you are using another shell look at the shell manual how to define environment variables and which files are executed at the shell startup.

  • 8
    The default behavior of su user is to change ownership of the current shell to the username arg, while keeping the home directory and environment of the calling user. To enter a shell in such a way as to become the new user, and gain all of their environmental settings ( $PATH, $HOME, $ABC, etc) you need to pass a - as the first argument to su. su - username will accomplish what you are asking for. Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 11:35
  • 1
    Wait: what do you mean by "exited to root"? In any case making an 'su' does not initialize the shell. You need 'su -' (see man su)
    – Matteo
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 11:43
  • 1
    Why did you su in the first place? Didn't you just create a root-owned .profile that cannot be used by the user? Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 11:50
  • 1
    @acid this is what is should have done. The question is, what is sourced when you log in. To check that, log out first. Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 11:55
  • 9
    Because .profile is read by all Bourne-compatible shells, you should not write Bash syntax in that file. In particular, export VARIABLE=value needs to be refactored into VARIABLE=value; export VARIABLE.
    – tripleee
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 6:56

Use /etc/environment file for setting the environment variables. Then add the following line inside the /etc/environment file.


Now the ABC variable will be accessible from all the user sessions. To test the variable output first refresh the environment variable using command

source /etc/environment

and run echo $ABC.

  • 5
    Be careful that /etc/environment doesn't support the full bash syntax, something I figured out the hard way. For example, putting PATH="/usr/bin:/usr/sbin" and then doing PATH="$PATH:/foo/bar" on a following line won't work Commented May 13, 2016 at 14:20
  • Unsure if this is a personal issue or what, but I had to reboot my OS after setting this in /etc/environment, even if I restarted the bash terminal or typed source /etc/environment. So if you're having issues where the environment variable isn't perpetuating, try rebooting.
    – Blairg23
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 1:04
  • 2
    The question is about setting it for a single user. I think /etc/environment is for all users on a machine.
    – Carolus
    Commented Dec 30, 2019 at 10:54
  • this one is the one that worked for me. many thanks!
    – falero80s
    Commented Apr 18, 2022 at 12:02

This is a general procedure you can use for pretty much any shell. In any case, you have to know which shell the user would normally log in with:

path="$(grep $USER /etc/passwd | cut -d ':' -f 7)"
shell="$(basename -- "$path")"

Then you have to figure out which dot-files this shell would normally read:

man $shell

A shortcut which might work is to list those dot-files which contain the shell name:

ls ~/.*${shell}*

If you want to check if one of the files is actually read during login, you can simply print the file name in each of them, for example:

echo .bashrc

When logging in, you should then see which files are being read, and you can decide which one to modify. Beware that you should not to try to use echo "$0" or similar, because the value of $0 depends on how the shell processes dot-files, and could be misleading.

When it comes to declaring the variable "permanently", note that this only extends to the session. There is no way to access the value of a variable without a session, so it has no meaning outside of one. If you mean "read-only", that is shell dependent, and in Bash you can use:

declare -r VAR

if it already has a value, or

declare -r VAR=value

to assign it at the same time. Not all shells have this feature.

To declare a variable in most shells, you should use a variable name ([A-Za-z_][A-Za-z0-9_]*), followed by an equal sign (and no spaces around the equal sign), then a value (preferably quoted unless the value is a simple [A-Za-z0-9_]+). For example:

name="John Doe"

Use export.

export ABC="123"

To check if it's set, use



env | grep ABC

To add it permanently, add this to your ~/.bashrc file.

export ABC="123"
  • 7
    He wants to know hot to define it permanently, i.e., in which file to put the definition.
    – Matteo
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 11:08
  • 1
    Doesnt work. Once i log out the variable is gone. I need it across sessions
    – user4069
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 11:08
  • 2
    you mean permenate and not permenently :D
    – whoami
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 11:09
  • look at edit for bashrc
    – whoami
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 11:12
  • 6
    whats permenate? do you mean permanent?
    – SSH This
    Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 15:49

Exact command is:

echo 'export ABC = "123"' >> ~/.profile
  • 7
    Exactly? Seriously? What shell (a) reads ~/.profile and (b) allows space before and after =? Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 17:20

The best way that worked for me is modifying the .bashrc file in the BASH shell.

use this for example:

  1. open your .bashrc file
  2. add this line:

    export <VARIABLE> = "<ANY PATH/VALUE you want>"

    eg : export HOME = "/home/user/"

    Remember to use "" as using ' ' will not work and your bashrc file will report error while sourcing.

  3. source it in the current session.

I also tried to modify the /etc/environment file but it didn't allow me to create a new environment variable and when I sourced it, it prompted error that the defined variable is not found.

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